When Students Create the Curriculum

In my third year of teaching Research Seminar, students continue to surprise and delight me with their work in the course. The course has a generic title so that each class may shape it as it wishes. This year’s class began the way that the other two have, with students choosing topics to research and then present to the class. The topics are always different, though. This year I have learned about the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Tuvan throat singing, serial killers, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, German artists affected by WWII, the Ryder Cup, Zionism, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the elixir of life, among other things. While most students did power point presentations, one student who studied witch trials set up a class simulation to illustrate the dynamics of the witch hunts. The class enjoyed it so much that they asked to do it again. Although I tell them they can do whatever they want – if they wanted to read a common book and write essays about it they could, I think they take the course because they like the freedom to learn what they want individually. It is after this first project that things get more interesting. They start to get creative. They have to hash out the curriculum in class discussion in order to set up the guidelines for the learning.

For the second project, the students decided that they want to do something short. After much discussion of various ideas, they came to consensus that they would each put three potential topics into a hat. Then, each person would select three topics from the hat randomly and choose one to research. The product is to be a three minute presentation with a maximum of five slides, due in less than a week. Some were pretty nervous about getting topics they were not interested in doing. The majority convinced them that it was only a short project and it would be a good opportunity to grow. The argument was that they might realize they were interested in something they would not have thought about or chosen. I have been urging the students to take risks and move out of their comfort zones. Some have embraced that challenge more than others. With this activity, they all had to take a leap. I am looking forward to see how they do. For me, what will matter most in this second project will be the reflection they write about the experience afterwards.

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